At Creative Artists Agency’s recent corporate retreat in Ojai, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger was invited to expound on the future of the entertainment business and field questions about the media giant.
He talked about Disney’s decision to make fewer movies. He talked about the acquisition of Pixar Animation, producer of the soon-to-be-released “Up.” He talked about the studio’s new deal to distribute films from director Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG.
Iger wasn’t asked about one segment of Disney’s business -- Miramax Films, the specialty label that no longer appears to fit into the company’s strategy to focus on family and big-event pictures.
Specialty divisions, which make offbeat movies aimed at sophisticated adult audiences and critics, do not typically generate the big returns that studios demand from their blockbuster-oriented priorities. That’s more important than ever as Hollywood looks to make fewer but more reliable bets with broad comedies and easily marketable sequels and prequels. Films such as “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Star Trek” are driving ticket sales and theater attendance to record levels this year.
In the wake of Disney’s rival media companies retrenching from their smaller film labels, many in the independent movie business fear that a similar fate awaits Miramax, one of only three such operations still in existence. Time Warner Inc. shut down two labels -- Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse -- while Viacom Inc. consolidated its Paramount Vantage unit into Paramount Pictures, and News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox closed Fox Atomic.
“People are as interested in seeing our movies as they are studio movies,” said John Sloss, a sales agent who sold distribution rights for such independent hits as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Napoleon Dynamite.” But for the corporate parents under pressure from stockholders “there’s not enough upside from these divisions, so they’re an easy target,” he said.
Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook says the company doesn’t have Miramax in its cross hairs.
“There is no for-sale sign on Miramax,” Cook said. “It’s a great place to find new talent and nurture interesting projects. And when you do hit it, it can be extraordinarily profitable and gives an added dimension with not a giant amount of overhead.”
Miramax is a long way from its glory days under temperamental moguls Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who once dominated the specialty film world with such modern-day classics as “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love.” Whereas Miramax used to regularly release movies that crossed over into big hits among mainstream audiences, in the last three years the studio has fielded only one -- the 2007 best-picture Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men,” which made a $50-million profit that was shared with Paramount Vantage.
Rival Fox Searchlight, on the other hand, as the result of blockbusters such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Juno,” now consistently beats Miramax in the game at which it once excelled.
“Do we want a breakout hit? Sure,” Cook said. “That kills a lot of ills. But in the years where you don’t have box-office hits, you have to have faith in the management and the direction of the studio -- which we do.”
After the Weinsteins parted bitterly from Disney in 2005, Cook chose Daniel Battsek, who was overseeing Disney Studios’ international arm in London, to run Miramax.
Disney doesn’t break out the financial performance of Miramax, and Cook declined to say whether the unit was profitable. Miramax released eight movies last year, including the religious drama “Doubt,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Those films generated $65.8 million in total U.S. ticket sales, down 50.3% from $132.3 million for the eight films that Miramax released in 2007.
Battsek said the success of hits like “Slumdog” and “No Country” proved that smaller movies could still cross over to become mainstream hits. “There have been peaks and troughs, but a wide range of independent films continue to perform well.”
Miramax today is a much-scaled-back specialty label from its heyday. Disney slashed the staff to 80 from 500, pared the annual production and marketing budget to about $250 million from $750 million and capped movie budgets at $20 million.
Since then, things have only gotten tougher for Hollywood. Adult dramas have been struggling to find audiences at the box office and the independent market has been hurt by a glut of films in theaters. That has led Battsek to revise his original plan to release 10 pictures a year down to six to eight.
“Because of the overall economic climate, as well as the market for specialized films, we have to focus even harder on choices we make,” he said.
Battsek also has had to consider introducing some movies on the Miramax release schedule for which the highbrow executive won’t be gearing up the well-oiled Oscar machine. For example, in an attempt to make Miramax’s films appeal to a more mainstream audience, the studio next year will release “The Baster,” a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston as a TV producer planning to have a baby on her own.
Another departure is a planned remake of the 1973 cult thriller TV movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” to star Katie Holmes and be produced by “Hellboy” filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Miramax plans to shoot the film this summer. Also in the works is an animated feature, “Gnomeo and Juliet,” conceived of as a big-budget project at Disney Animation but now a lower-cost production in Toronto with a score by Elton John and voice-overs by actors James McAvoy and Emily Blunt.
Miramax is still best known for the films on which it built its name, which serve as an antidote for the popcorn fare that studios routinely churn out. For example, in June the company is “counterprogramming” Stephen Frears’ film “Cheri,” a “scandalous romp” starring Michele Pfeiffer as an aging courtesan, against Paramount Pictures’ sequel “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”
Directors who make films for Miramax say they are grateful for Battsek’s continued commitment to independent films while others have backed out.
“I make adult films and I go to see them,” Frears said. “So I have a vested interest in hoping these companies will go on.”
So does Scott Rudin, who produced “No Country for Old Men” and is Miramax’s largest supplier of movies. Rudin, a producer known in Hollywood as not easily satisfied, says Battsek is “responsive and sets a very high bar on quality.”
Battsek has kept up Miramax’s tradition of copping top Oscar awards, including best actor for Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” in 2007 and Helen Mirren for best actress in “The Queen” in 2006. But the awards do not guarantee big moneymakers. Both “Blood,” co-financed with Paramount Vantage, and “Queen” barely eked out a profit.
Miramax has also had more than its share of misses, including the dark drama “Blindness” last year. It paid $5 million for the U.S. distribution rights but grossed just over $3 million in domestic ticket sales.
The company had banked its hopes on its most recent film, “Adventureland,” an R-rated coming-of-age comedy from the director of the raunchy hit “Superbad” that Miramax positioned as a wide studio release. But “Adventureland” has earned only $15.8 million at the box office since opening in April.
Although such results might try Disney’s patience with Miramax, some in Hollywood counsel perseverance.
“It took Fox Searchlight a while to find its identity and get its business plan in order,” said Robert Newman, a motion picture agent at Endeavor whose clients include “Slumdog” director Danny Boyle. “Now Fox is reaping the rewards of staying the course.”
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Miramax has four more movies scheduled for release this year. They are:
A period romance directed by Stephen Frears and starring Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging courtesan who has a fling with a 19-year-old bon vivant played by Rupert Friend. Frears said Miramax became involved with the project as soon as it acquired North American distribution rights. “They came in to support it before we made it,” he said. Opens June 26.
A comedy written and directed by Mike Judge and starring Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck, about a flavor extract factory owner whose personal life and retirement dreams turn upside down after a workplace accident. Miramax, which owns North American distribution rights, backed this first film from the production company of the creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” Opens Sept. 4.
‘THE BOYS ARE BACK’
Directed by Scott Hicks, the film stars Clive Owen as a widower struggling to raise his two sons alone. Prior to shooting, Miramax picked up the distribution rights for North America and Western Europe, except Spain. Opens Sept. 25.
A remake of the Italian film “Stanno Tutti Bene,” written and directed by Kirk Jones and starring Robert De Niro as a widower who goes on an impromptu road trip to reconnect with his grown children. A co-production with Ted Field’s Radar Pictures. Opens Nov. 20.